The Beginning of Hope

In the first hours after a natural disaster, numb shock gives way to despair. This is a job for … a former millionaire?

By David Murray

Tad Agoglia is not a superhero. He doesn’t use fantastic physics and magical powers to hush hurricanes and ward off tornadoes. That would be ridiculous.

Ted Agoglia (background) and a local official map out a strategy for deploying the First Response Team in Peoria, Illinois.

Instead, he materializes immediately after disaster has struck to begin rectifying the situation with state-of-the-art machinery and near-mystical skill and stamina. That is also ridiculous.

But it’s real. And the questions you find yourself asking Agoglia are the same ones a child eventually asks of a superhero: Where did you come from? Why do you do this? How do you do this?

THE CALM BEFORE THE STORMS

Agoglia frequently apologizes when he talks about how he came to create the First Response Team of America, an organization that has aided 73 disaster-stricken communities in the last eight years free of charge, fulfilling its philanthropic mission to “fill the gap between the onset of a disaster and the arrival of traditional relief agencies, when too many communities must fend for themselves because the resources necessary for rescue are damaged, inaccessible or unavailable.”

Agoglia in the aftermath of another natural disaster.

He apologizes because he thinks it sounds like he’s bragging.

But he’s only sharing the facts of his still-young life. It’s not his fault they add up to so much.

His father was an Italian immigrant and an entrepreneur. “I got to see a man wake up every day and work until he fell asleep,” Agoglia recalls. As a child in Long Island, he felt searing pain in reaction to human suffering. He remembers a boy who got hit by a car, and “seeing him lie on the cold asphalt road in pain.”

He studied theology in college, but after earning his master’s, he decided he wasn’t cut out to be a theologian: “I needed to be a little more hands on.” So he went into the excavating business, and made millions in various lucrative ventures, the last of which was a firm that contracted with FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and other government agencies to do the necessary but workmanlike debris cleanup in the long wake of disasters like Hurricane Katrina. From the seat of his excavator, Agoglia mused about ways to “use my skills working in disasters, and match them with my desire to help people who are suffering.”

On May 4, 2007, a 29-year-old Agoglia was working a routine job in Missouri when an EF5 tornado destroyed the town of Greensburg, Kansas. He left his employees on the paying job — “they thought I was crazy”– and drove his massive debris-hauling rig through the night. After months and years of ruminating about how fire trucks and ambulances get through rubble-filled streets to houses where people are trapped, he realized, “I’ve just gotta find out for myself.”

About 30 miles outside of town Agoglia stopped for fuel, and a customer at the station “walked up to me in the darkness” and asked him if he was going to Greensburg. “If you see a girl in her early thirties — she’s a veterinarian — tell her her father is looking for her.”

A First Response team member clears debris from a tornado-ravaged neighborhood in Washington, Illinois, in November 2013.

It was then that Agoglia fully realized, “I’m going into a very difficult situation of death and destruction.”

He didn’t yet know he would spend the rest of his life there.

HOW TO MAKE AN IOWA POLICE CHIEF CRY

Chris Luhring was the fortunate beneficiary of Agoglia’s second First Response adventure, though he didn’t see it that way at first. “When I first met Tad, I was yelling at Tad,” says Luhring, who was the police chief of Parkersburg, Iowa, on May 25, 2008, when another EF5 leveled 46 percent of the buildings in the town and killed seven people, including Luhring’s own aunt.

Luhring was trying to create a secure perimeter for operations and Agoglia’s truck was in the way. When Agoglia told him he was there to help, Luhring didn’t believe him. “At that point, I didn’t trust anybody not from Butler County,” he says. His reaction to a stranger claiming he was there to help for no charge to the city? “I may be traumatized,” Luhring remembers thinking, “but I’m not stupid.”

Yet, Luhring did have some problems that Agoglia was uniquely qualified to solve. Glancing at the destroyed city hall building and the fire trucks rendered inaccessible by twisted steel, and then pointing to his big grapple, Agoglia said, “I can pull out a piece of paper with this grapple, or throw a car across the street.”

Over the next two weeks, Agoglia and his newly formed team did for Parkersburg what he would eventually do for so many other towns in the years that followed: he showed a community full of people who were moving from numb shock to hopeless depression that “things are getting done,” as he puts it. Luhring describes an epic Sunday operation about a week after the tornado hit, where Agoglia and his tiny crew had 30 large county dump trucks roaring back and forth to keep up with him as he cleared an entire city block’s worth of rubble in a day.

“We don’t solve all the problems. We can’t take away people’s pain, but we can give them a little bit of hope,” Agoglia says. “And they just run with it.”

“I can start crying right now, actually,” Luhring tells ARC nearly seven years later. Now the town’s administrator, he attributes the remarkable speed and scope of Parkersburg’s recovery solely to the start Agoglia gave it. He’s nearly in tears as he describes what he sees as Agoglia’s near-mystical powers of pure altruism.

“In our culture so immersed with celebrity status, Tad doesn’t work for the attention,” Luhring says. “He works for farmers, for poor people.”

FROM SAINTLY TO SUSTAINABLE

But after several years of funding First Response with his own resources, Agoglia was in danger of becoming a poor person himself. He was spending about $70,000 per month fueling and transporting his $2 million worth of equipment from his home base in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Running out of cash, Agoglia now needed someone to rescue him.

Which is exactly what happened. CNN’s Anderson Cooper ran a story on Agoglia, and a middle manager at Caterpillar’s headquarters in Peoria, Illinois, noticed that much of the equipment Agoglia was using was Cat. Shouldn’t Cat support First Response? Soon Agoglia was offered $250,000 worth of equipment and another $250,000 in cash. As Agoglia scrambled to create a nonprofit organization in order to accept the donation tax-free, Peterbilt stepped forward and offered three free trucks of their own. He’s since received donations of cash, equipment and even personnel from a number of companies as well as individuals.

The First Response team brings hope to residents shocked and numbed by the impact of a natural disaster.

Eight years after starting First Response, Agoglia doesn’t actually have a place to live. He doesn’t need one. When he isn’t working a disaster, he’s traveling the country raising money or doing publicity for First Response in the interest of raising money.

And when he’s not doing that, he’s scouring Lancaster and the surrounding area for crew members who can hack this technically demanding, emotionally draining, unpredictable, exhausting work.

Turnover is high. Why? To work on First Response’s three- to four-man crew, one must have a CDL license and experience operating cranes, excavators, loaders, dozers, backhoes and chainsaws. Agoglia’s stated job requirements are almost laughably stringent: “flexibility to be on-call at a moment’s notice, seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and on the road for eight to 10 months throughout the year … ability to use good judgment and remain calm in high-stress situations … ability to be unaffected by loud noises and flashing lights … ability to work in low-light situations and confined spaces … ability to withstand varied environmental conditions such as extreme heat, cold and moisture.”

And all, especially in the early days after a disaster, with very little sleep. At 19, Timothy Wolkowicz was the crane operator in that Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel scene in Parkersburg. Now 26 and Agoglia’s first mate, Wolkowicz says the typical job starts with a sleepless night of driving to the disaster area. “We get there at sunup, work all day, sleep for a couple of hours, and then early the next morning, do it all over again.” He thinks he and Agoglia are unique in their ability to work sleeplessly and safely, but “I know my limits.”

First Response’s newest employee is still learning hers.

A young neuroscience researcher at Johns Hopkins, Nga Chau, moonlights between observing brain surgeries and driving First Response trucks as the third member of Agoglia’s small traveling crew. Her first job was in December, when a tornado struck Columbia, Mississippi, two days before Christmas. First Response arrived on Christmas Eve, with Chau learning on the job how to operate a compact track loader, a skid steer and a chainsaw, all in a combination of awe and anxiety at what she was seeing firsthand for the first time.

“You have to figure out where to start,” she says, “because everything is everywhere.”

A resident surveys the damage to her property after a tornado hits Tupelo, Mississippi, in April 2014.

By the time she and First Response left Columbia, everything wasn’t everywhere. Linda Bolton’s home, for instance, was cleared from her lot. “It’s just a blessing,” she told The Weather Channel about First Response. “You just can’t find people like that every day.”

Or as Parkersburg’s Luhring put it seven years after meeting a guy who seemed too good to be true, “Tad is my best friend who I’ve only seen for 13 days.”

Meanwhile, Agoglia’s manic lifestyle doesn’t leave much room for friends or family, except for those he has helped, those who have helped him — and the thousands of unsuspecting people he’ll help in the future.

“My life has become this work,” Agoglia says, “and they are my family.”

“What food is to the Red Cross,” Tad Agoglia says, “equipment is to First Response.” If you have equipment or other resources that you think First Response could use, contact the organization at: inquiries@firstresponseteam.org.